Microsoft has made a pledge to move faster these days, and on Friday announced that it's adding two new features to PowerPoint - and creating a way to let Microsoft fans get early access to even more new features down the line.
The two new features are called Morph and Designer, and both are aimed at making PowerPoint presentations less ugly and less boring.
Designer will automatically look at any photo you upload into PowerPoint for a background and suggest several snazzy layout options, based on the template you've selected and the photo itself. Microsoft came up with those suggestions by consulting actual designers, who created the library of 12,000 layout suggestions. Designer also uses machine-learning to analyze the photo you've selected to pick the right suggested layouts. So, for example, if you're using a graph, the program will recognize that and try not to offer layouts that obscure key parts of that image.
Designer doesn't add much in the way of new functionality for the program but rather makes some of the more advanced PowerPoint functions more accessible to the average user. During a Skype demo of the features conducted for The Washington Post, Microsoft employee Chris Maloney - who spearheaded the Designer feature - said that the goal was to "save clicks" for PowerPoint users.
"That's about 150 clicks worth of work you don't have to do now," he said, alluding to all the clicking, dragging, resizing and other tasks that used to be required to get these kinds of designs. "And you get to see new design ideas you probably never thought to do yourself."
The other feature is Morph - a streamlined way to drop animations into PowerPoint presentations. Maloney said that many PowerPoint users, particularly teachers, often want to put animations into their projects to keep audience's attention, but they are intimidated by the way it's currently done in the program.
With Morph, users can simply adjust the shape or layout of their image on a new slide, and PowerPoint will automatically link those slides together to create the animation.
"At the end of the day, these are individual slides. You're just moving the shapes around," he said. "As long as you know how to use shapes, you'll be able to make these and tell stories."
Making the animation process easier has been one of PowerPoint's most-requested features, said Shawn Villaron, the head of PowerPoint at Microsoft. It had been under discussion for years but hadn't moved much beyond talking about how to streamline the process. But a recent hackathon, in which engineers were encouraged to quickly prototype a product, ended up putting out a project that set the groundwork for Morph.
Villaron credits a new company-wide emphasis on fast updates and growth for finally getting this idea into the program. The pace change is supposed to reflect the priorities of chief executive Satya Nadella, who's aiming to modernize Microsoft and pull it into a mindset that reflects the fast-moving nature of a mobile- and cloud-based world.
"This is indicative of the new Microsoft" and Nadella's leadership, Villaron said.
The PowerPoint updates are the first of many small updates, he added. Microsoft first released its 2016 update for the Windows version of Office in September, with key revamps to Word, Excel and Outlook. But that release also kicked off a new development cycle for Microsoft. At the time, the company promised that it would provide more frequent updates to its programs, rather than saving all its changes for big but infrequent releases. With more customers paying regular subscription fees for access to Office, the company said, it would give those users more regular updates that added smaller features and bug fixes.
While Microsoft is moving faster to get its changes for PowerPoint and other Office programs out, it is also giving its subscribers the option to get an inside peek at its pipeline. The firm said Friday that a new "Office Insider" program will give certain customers the option to try out features that are almost ready for prime time but still need some polish.
"Once installed, you will get early access to the new Office innovations. Then tell us what you think, your feedback will make Office great for users worldwide," the company said on the program's Web site.
The Insider option will be open for Office users on all platforms down the line, but Mac users will have to "sit tight" for a bit. Mac users, iOS users and Android users will also have to wait a bit for the new PowerPoint features, which are rolling out first to Windows desktop and mobile.
Features will show up roughly three or four weeks before they go into the mainstream version, Villaron said. "We're excited to be able to give people the opportunity to kick the tires and give us feedback," he said.
© 2015 The Washington Post